It was a big deal for the Manitoba Junior Hockey League -- opening night for the loop's brand new team in Virden, the Oil Capitals -- and so, naturally, commissioner Kim Davis hopped in his car Friday and headed southwest from his home in Winnipeg.
Checking up on the MJHL's 11 franchises now involves covering a lot more kilometres for the commish as, for the first time in a history that dates back to 1918, there will be only one squad -- the Blues -- that will call Winnipeg home for the 2012-13 season.
Last April the Winnipeg Saints moved to Virden and it's worth noting that since 1990 three franchises based in the provincial capital have either pulled the plug or relocated: The Kildonan North Stars (folded in 1990) St. James Canadians (ceased operations in 2003) and now the dearly departed Saints have exited, stage left.
So what was once a league predominantly based in Winnipeg has essentially abandoned the province's biggest market and morphed into a rural-based entity.
And that's not a criticism, but simply the league's new reality.
"It's been a tough nut for the Winnipeg teams over the years," said Davis this week. "I hate to use the term but, 'it is what it is.' "
Operating an MJHL team costs a good chunk of change, with the average budget coming in at around $400,000. Teams generate revenue in three ways: 1. Ticket sales; 2. Corporate sponsorship and, 3: Fund-raising events.
And the Winnipeg-based franchises have been fighting the good fight, often to no avail, for years.
"I don't know what the exact figure is, but we lost a significant amount of money last year," said Winnipeg Blues GM and head coach Don MacGillivray. "We're a non-profit organization. We have ownership that writes cheques if we lose money and those days are going to come to an end soon.
"We've got to find a way to balance the budget at the end of the season."
A sporting fixture in St. Boniface since their formation in 1967, the Saints were essentially a franchise without roots over the last three years, moving from the Dakota Community Centre to St. Adolphe to the St. James Civic Centre. In the end, the uncertainty and upheaval left the owners with no recourse but to sell.
"It really hurt to have them leave," said Davis. "It's a tremendous group of people, great guys and successful in their own businesses. They wanted to maintain it here in Winnipeg, but their search turned up empty.
"And Virden... it's a little smaller than we probably would have liked (population is around 3,000) quite frankly, but their intention is to market it and promote it as a regional team. There's a lot of positives going for it. I mean, they had 900 for an exhibition game. They'll have good crowds watching a very entertaining product in a new facility. And there's no fear they'll get evicted from the facility."
That facility is the new Tundra Oil and Gas Place, a building that features a 1,200-seat arena, a community hall, offices, an indoor walking track and fitness centre. The team has hired a Red Seal chef that will run the canteen like a catering business in an attempt to make an MJHL game like a night out for its faithful.
And, most importantly, there is absolutely no worry the Oil Capitals will be evicted.
"Right now we're going over some last-minute details like trying to make sure the crowd flow is going to be right and that it's not going to be congested too much," said team president Dale Lewis prior to Friday's opener. "We're pretty much sold out and we printed 1,484 tickets. The whole area is really excited about this.
"We told the boys that when they come out here to play they'll be the big game in town. They're already recognized on the street, they're recognized everywhere. I talked to every one of these kids last year and when they finished a game in Winnipeg they just went home. They melted into the city, so to speak.
"It's a big deal here. But, let's face it, we're not a big enough centre just to rely on Virden. We relying on small towns like Elkhorn, Melita, Reston, Hamiota... all the towns around us. If we don't have that buy-in, we're not going to survive.
"We're in the honeymoon phase now, but in three-to-five years we're really going to have to work. And we're ready for it."
This isn't a scenario that is unique to the MJHL. The Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, for example, does not operate franchises in its biggest centres where the Western Hockey League rules -- Regina, Saskatoon, Moose Jaw, Prince Albert, Swift Current -- but thrives in places like Yorkton, Humboldt, Melfort and Estevan.
The same goes here in this province.
"We've always had a strong presence in the rural part of the province," said Davis. "If you've been to Portage or Dauphin, you see how the games are an event there. And then compare that to the games in Winnipeg.... it's just night and day.
"Part of the reason is Junior A hockey in those markets is the big news in town. The Saints and Blues, Kildonan and St. James... costs are going up and they keep going up and with a diminished opportunity to generate revenues. At some point things don't add up."
But it doesn't mean the Blues will just throw up the white flag in surrender, either. Their home opener is Saturday against the Selkirk Steelers. Here's their sales pitch: the hockey is superb, the first 500 fans through the door get a bag of OMG candy and tickets are just $10 for adults, $8 for senior and $5 for students.
Oh, and in case you missed it, that other league with a grip on this town has gone dark for who knows how long.
"We're hoping with the Jets not being able to play that we could capitalize on that early in the season and see if we can't attract a few more people on a regular basis," MacGillivray said. "There's lots of people in Winnipeg who haven't been to a game or haven't been to an MJHL game in a long time and don't realize the calibre of play.
"Right now our main focus is trying to get people into the door. We'd love it if this could become an event, even for a small portion of people, the way Saturday night is in Winkler for a Flyers game or a Terriers game on a Friday night in Portage.
"It's a work in progress, we've made some strides, but we're certainly not where we want to be. Not yet."
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